Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Engineer Who Upended Technical Lexicography

This is about a man who was not a Professional Lexicographer but a Professional Engineer. He was trained as an electrical engineer and he inherited a successful engineering factory from his father. But he became a self-taught Expert Lexicographer who was internationally recognised as such, and he revolutionised one major area of lexicography, that of technical terms.

His name was Eugen Wüster, he was Austrian, and he lived from 1898 to 1977.

He became interested in his teens in overcoming barriers to international communication. That was one of the driving motives in his career. In that spirit he learnt Esperanto and wrote an Esperanto-German dictionary. However, he wrote his dictionaries to spread his ideas and not to make money.

The other main inspiration was his observation that multilingual technical terminology, starting with that of his own speciality, electrical engineering, was constantly hindered by imprecision. There were too many synonyms, or near synonyms, for the same referent, and terms were translated by terms in other languages whose referents were not exactly the same. Wüster's answer for electrical engineering was to seek international agreement on the standardisation of terms. As a result, the Committee for Terminology Standardisation of the International Standards Organisation (now ISO/TC 37) was established in 1936. But how to ensure that the terms thus standardised would have exactly the same meaning?

It’s generally believed in linguistics that words have two facets that are welded or linked together mentally. One is their outward spoken or written form, their signifier, and the other is their meaning or concept, their signified. Mentally we may access a word by either, but traditional lexicography accesses them by form. (Yes, I know about thesauri, but that’s another story.) Hence we look up a word by its written form, and in a monolingual dictionary the concept follows as a written description or less often as a graphic. In bilingual dictionaries, however, it’s different. We still look up the source language word by its form, but what follows is the target language form or forms that is/are deemed by the lexicographer to be its equivalent. The concept isn’t provided, so we can‘t judge whether it's the same and often we don‘t fully apprehend it.

Wüster's answer can be stated simply as: Start with the concept. First define or describe the concept precisely, and then look for the word form or forms that express it; not vice versa. From that follows the principle: no term to be presented without its concept. It's a procedure that can be applied far more widely than to standardised terms; because even if a word in Language A doesn't have exactly the same meaning as a word substituted for it in Language B, explicitation of their concepts enables us to see and make allowance for the differences. He made other contributions to a new 'science' of terminology as practised by a new profession, that of terminologist, but this was the most important.

His ideas came at the right time, because of important changes in the 'ecology' of technical vocabulary.
  •  The 1950s saw the first wave of what was called 'the documentation explosion': an enormous increase in the volume of technical documents in circulation. Sustaining it was an explosion in the technologies themselves. New terms were required for the novelties. Typically they appeared first in English and then equivalents had to be devised in other languages.
  • The advent of computers increased the amount of information that could be stored and presented about a term far beyond what was practicable and affordable in paper dictionaries. Furthermore, computers provided new tools for finding concepts without having to know the signifier form.
 Let's take a real-life example.

Last week I was translating the degrees of a Spanish doctor who's going to Canada. The Canadian medical authorities are very fussy about such translations. The doctor has a degree as especialista en aparato digestivo. Aparato digestivo is usually translated as digestive system, digestive organs or sometimes digestive tract. So on the face of it, i.e. according to the signifiers, I might have translated this as "specialist in the digestive organs," and people would have understood. However, it didn't seem right, because other branches of medicine have Greek and Latin based terms for them that are the ones used professionally , e.g. ophthalmology for the medicine of the eyes and vision. A doctor's degree diploma in that field wouldn't be inscribed specialist in vision and the optic system. What was the professional term in this case? I had no idea. So I tried the Wüsterian approach. I needed a term that expressed the following complex of concepts:
  • A branch of medicine
  • Treatment of disorders of the digestive organs. (Note that the concepts of treatment and disorders are missing from the Spanish wording, according to which the referent might well have been a branch of anatomy.)
So I Googled for definitions that contained the keywords medicine and digestive organs, and quickly found a term whose concept matched exactly what I was looking for. It was gastroenterology. Several medical dictionaries define it as a branch of medicine focused on the digestive system and its disorders. (Furthermore, it's derived from Greek. But the Wüsterian system has its drawbacks, and one of them is that it ignores etymology.)
Wüster was supported by Unesco and left behind him an international organisation of his followers, Infoterm. Today there are many professional terminologists who work according to his principles and consign their findings to computerised term banks. In Canada there are enough of them for them to be considered a branch of the translation profession alongside written translators and interpreters. You can take a look at a large Canadian term bank by clicking here.
Would he, I wonder, have ventured to upend technical lexicography if he hadn't been trained as  (to quote Kevin Lossner's comment) "a  practical engineer".
This post concludes the mini-series on Native Lexicographers.

  • Eugen Wüster. Wikipedia, 2013.
  • Eugen Wüster. Enciklopedia Vortaro Esperanta-Germana [Esperanto-German Dictionary]. 4 vols. Leipzig: Hirt, 1923-1929. Considered a classic, but hard to find.
  • Eugen Wüster. Introduction to the General Theory of Terminology and Terminological Lexicography. Vienna: Springer, 1979. English translation of his Einführung in die allgemeine Terminologielehre und terminologische Lexikographie. There are also French, Japanese and Spanish translations.
  • Eugen Wüster. The Machine Tool: An Interlingual [English, French, German] Dictionary of Basic Concepts , comprising An Alphabetical Dictionary and a Classified Vocabulary. London: Technical Press, under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 1968. An application of his principles in a paper format. Second-hand copies on offer from Amazon UK.
Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek


  1. Figures that one of the greatest innovators in terminology was a practical engineer. Bravo!

  2. I just can't keep from wondering why the doctor did not use the term "gastroenterólogo" and opted instead for "especialista en aparato digestivo".

  3. In answer to your question, mr April, it wasn't the doctor who used the expression "especialista en aparato digestivo." It came from the Spanish ministry that issued him or her the degree in the area. (In Spain, these specialist degrees are issued by a government ministry.) But beyond that, I'm as mystified as you are. However, I felt I had to find a more appropriate translation.